It is the horizon that marks the way across Iceland. It is there, where soft rock broken apart by fast-moving glaciers shows itself against the low, high-latitude snow, that one sees the difference between the impossible jumble of the near and the impossible formlessness of the distant.
It is the most basic cultural act to set up a human marker in that spot, in the most recognizable shape: a human guide. The jumble and the white-out become intimately more human, as a deep, psychological break between darkness and light. It clears the mind …
… and you find the way, exactly at the point, the ridges, where the wind blows the snow away. For most of Iceland’s history, these cairns were the difference between life and death as one travelled across country. Here at Litlafoss, it guides herdsmen out of the canyon pastures and away from the cliff where the raven nests and waits for you to slip and break your head. You can see some of these cairns on the left of the image below, although the one above was on the right and out of the image.
For Icelanders, these cairns are some of the deepest history in the land, and one of the historical markers of the creation of Icelandic culture.
They are to be approached with the reverence with which one approaches the caves at Lascaux or the Sphinx, and so are the glacial rubble fields that inspired them. Walk lightly in Iceland. Nature here is historical space.
You pass through history to get to the falls.
To find the falls, you must go deep into the earth.
In the speech he read throughout the Third Reich in the spring of 1940, “Our Land” Gunnar spoke of how Icelandic rock rose in the chain-linked stanzas of traditional Icelandic verse. Here’s the gorge outside his house.
At its foot lies Melárett, the fold that was the largest public building in Iceland in his time, used to gather flocks in winter and separate them out, farm by farm: a place for people to work in unison, come together, and then separate by choice into their own private affairs.
I’m sure the two concepts were intimately linked in series in his mind. Hitler didn’t enjoy the suggestion, by the way.
When you’re in Iceland, it’s good to get off the beaten track. No tour guide will lead you to this troll at Skriðuklaustur.
Or this one. If people laugh about your troll finds, does that really matter?
You might even find an entire troll narrative. What does it matter if there are no physical entities called trolls?
You can find pictures of those things in bookshops, for children, without an explanation of the politics behind them. What is that politics? Guess.
Contemporary ecology is based on stories of trolls from Norway in the 1920s. I think it’s possible that ecology in the 2120s will be based on stories of trolls found today.
Oh, how time changes things. There are people on Earth, such as Canadians and Icelanders, whose social lives are profoundly shaped by the culture of the United States and its exported industry, wars, culture and technologies. For three generations, we have accepted these intrusions as business arrangements, for the mutual benefit of all. The image of Hvalfjörður below illustrates the principle well: the airfield that protected the Allied Fleet during the Battle of the Atlantic in the foreground, when Iceland was occupied by the US Army, and the American aluminum plant in the background, which has brought a certain level of industrial economy to Iceland, although dominating the fjord and depressing its possibilities as a residential suburb of Reykjavik, adding to the pressure to expand Reykjavik upon unstable volcanic terrane. Both speak of a long, although not always willing, partnership that not only lead to Iceland’s independence but to Iceland’s freedom from poverty and to world peace.
We can only hope that some beneficial partnership can continue, now that the aluminum from this American plant is subject to a penalizing tax if it were to be shipped to the United States or bought by another American corporation, on the grounds that it is contributing to the military vulnerability of the United States. That this is essentially a tax on the freedom brought to Iceland by the USA under the guise of a beneficent occupation (first military and then economic) is ironic, as it will strengthen Iceland’s ties with nations other than the United States, including China, the main target of the US tax. In other words, the image above is of two ruins: the old airfield, now a bird sanctuary, and the aluminum plant across the fjord. Iceland will continue, in its resilient ways, but this is an image of a lost world. Best to see it before it’s gone, like the colonial Danish sulfur mines above Lake Myvatn, now a major tourist site, with nary a sign to say these are the slag heaps.
Romantic display holds great power here, but masks a harsh social reality of a proud people who must actively trade with the world to maintain their independence from it. The balance is difficult.
Back in the days before lava covered the best of Iceland and people had to move up onto the hills with their sheep…
… the priests of Kirkjubær …
The basalt column marks the old church.
… were famous for keeping a group of nuns, well, orphan girls for the most part, over at Kirkubærjarklaustur, for the pleasure that could be gained from that …
… in just the place the Irish monks (who were on Iceland before the Icelanders) were camping out in caves in the cliffs and living off bird eggs (and then abandoned because a bunch of noisy pagans and their Irish women [slaves aka wives] had moved into town), and I wonder, you know, if the priests didn’t choose the place because the falls are like a bridal veil.
… that flows down the hill separately, splits around the rock (fine Christian symbolism there) and then unites as one — before flowing through the cloister. We’ll never know, but we do know that the young women were set to work embroidering cloth, and that Icelandic cloth was the best in the world. It would be a surprise if the amorous priests missed out on the symbolism, or didn’t point it out to the girls left in their charge. At any rate, the falls are beautiful, and richer for a history older than Iceland, even though the lava took all the best land away, some say to punish those lascivious priests.
Still, the land’s still good enough for zipping through on a tractor, so all is not lost.
So many Icelandic men of my father’s generation thought they could stay on the land if they built a nice concrete house to keep their families out of the wind, but they did it the Icelandic way, with salt beach sand, and it fell apart.
Women still come, as the snagged necklet of clear glass beads and fishing line below shows, but, as the snag shows, they leave without these baubles, too.
And that is one of the forces that powers the world.
In Iceland, the major architectural monuments from the past are also way-finding cairns of stones passing across inhospitable terrain. They were essential for commerce and the maintaining of a low technology culture in a harsh environment. They are now essential links to the past, as important to Icelanders as, say, the pyramids in Egypt or the Strasbourg Cathedral in France. In other words, they led somewhere, and still lead somewhere important, even as people continue to try to read them.
Aimlessness at Þingvellirvatn
Unfortunately, many contemporary visitors to Iceland, being humans and liking to make their own presence into lasting magical gestures, a signature of their kind, obscure the landscapes with their mark-making. Please don’t. It’s ugly and aimless. They don’t let you do it in Paris. Respect goes a long way towards creating beauty.